Mona Lisa: How Did She Get To Be So Famous?

From a fateful ocean liner journey to a risqué postcard, a few surprising circumstances have ensured that Leonardo da Vinci’s Louvre showstopper, the Mona Lisa, retains its celebrity status.

Nov 27, 2020By Emily Snow, MA History of Art, BA Art History & Curatorial Studies
mona lisa
Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1503-17, via Musée du Louvre, Paris; with Colored Mona Lisa by Andy Warhol, 1963, via Christie’s


The iconic Mona Lisa, or La Gioconda, has captured art lovers, historians, conspiracy theorists, and tourists since the early sixteenth century. Each year, millions of visitors to the Musée du Louvre in Paris brave the constant crowds surrounding the Mona Lisa—and many leave wondering exactly why this small portrait is so significant.


The Mona Lisa: A Renaissance Portrait


Leonardo da Vinci, the quintessential Renaissance Man, began painting the Mona Lisa in Florence in 1503. It is most likely a portrait of noblewoman Lisa Gherardini that was commissioned by her husband Francesco del Giocondo.


The Mona Lisa is a half-length, three-quarter pose portrait—a revolutionary approach for its time that set the standard for later portraiture. Also unique was Leonardo’s use of sfumato, a method of drawing that excludes outlines to create a soft, lifelike effect, and the imaginary background landscape, which heightens the mystery surrounding the sitter’s identity and why her portrait was commissioned.


The Mona Lisa remained in Leonardo’s studio until his death in 1519, after which it joined the royal collection of King Francis I. The painting was later reclaimed by French revolutionaries and, after briefly hanging in Napoleon Bonaparte’s bedroom, it was installed in the Louvre where it remains on permanent display today.


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These are some of the surprising stories that help explain why the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world centuries after its creation.


Mona Lisa Goes Missing From The Louvre

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Theft of Mona Lisa (magazine cover) illustrated by Achille Beltrame, 1911, via Getty Images


After its addition to the Louvre’s permanent collection in 1804, the Mona Lisa was enjoyed by visitors but did not stand out to anyone besides the occasional Renaissance scholar—until it disappeared from the museum without a trace in 1911.


The mysterious heist led to a high-profile police investigation and extensive coverage in newspapers around the world, quickly elevating the Mona Lisa into the public consciousness. Museum visitors crowded around the empty space on the gallery wall, which was referred to as Paris’s “mark of shame.” Renowned cubist Pablo Picasso and Wall Street tycoon J.P. Morgan were both investigated as suspects—but the real culprit turned out to be Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian handyman and former Louvre employee.


Peruggia hid in a closet overnight at the Louvre and, early on a Monday morning, quietly emerged to remove the protective glass he once installed on the Mona Lisa. With the help of two accomplices, he successfully smuggled the painting out of the museum, and nobody noticed it was missing for over twenty-four hours.


Because the Mona Lisa’s popularity exploded in the wake of the heist, Peruggia could not simply sell it as planned. After hiding the painting in his Paris apartment for two years, he finally attempted to sell it to an art dealer in Florence. Peruggia was arrested on the spot and the masterpiece was triumphantly returned to the Louvre with newfound notoriety to its name.


A Scandalous Dada Makeover

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L.H.O.O.Q. by Marcel Duchamp, 1919, originally published in 391, n. 12, March 1920


In 1919, the world was commemorating the four hundredth anniversary of Leonardo’s death, and contemporary analyses of Leonardo’s life and work by thought leaders like Sigmund Freud were circulating widely. Within this context, a rectified readymade by Dada artist Marcel Duchamp in the same year was met with controversy that once again shined a spotlight on the Mona Lisa.


Duchamp was known for popularizing the readymade, which refers to an everyday object that is reimagined by an artist and placed in a gallery setting. In this case, the found object was a postcard reproduction of the Mona Lisa on which Duchamp used a pencil to add a mustache, a goatee, and a risqué new title. The name “L.H.O.O.Q.” is a pun that, when pronounced in French, sounds like “Elle a chaud au cul” or “She has a hot ass.”


Critics of Duchamp’s work were scandalized by his crude defacement of a secular icon, interpreting it as an attack on French art and the cultural elite who enjoyed it. But Duchamp’s work and the resulting controversy would only pave the way for more parodies of the painting over the years, including works by surrealists Salvador Dalí and René Magritte. Some of these parodies referenced both the Mona Lisa and L.H.O.O.Q., further diluting the Leonardo original.


Jackie Kennedy Invites Her On A Transatlantic Journey

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Photo of young visitors at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. on January 14, 1963, via Washington Post


Thanks to some convincing by First Lady Jackie Kennedy, the French minister of cultural affairs agreed to lend the Mona Lisa to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 1963.


Widespread protests ensued from arts professionals and the French public, most of whom worried that the risks outweighed the spectacle of the painting’s transatlantic journey. All eyes were on the masterpiece when it was carefully removed from the Louvre and transported to the United States. A temperature-controlled case and a fireproof, watertight container were custom-made for the Mona Lisa, which traveled across the Atlantic in a deluxe private cabin onboard the ocean liner SS France. Security guards and museum officials kept vigil around the clock until the painting arrived safely in the American capital.


In an address at the opening event of the National Gallery exhibition, President John F. Kennedy said, “This painting is the second lady that the people of France have sent to the United States, and though she will not stay with us as long as the Statue of Liberty, our appreciation is equally great.” The exhibition captured headlines across the country as 500,000 people came to the National Gallery to see the Mona Lisa in just three weeks. Later, in New York City, the painting was visited at the Met by another one million people.


Pop Culture Icon Mona Lisa Meets Pop Art

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Triple Mona Lisa by Andy Warhol, 1916, via Architectural Digest


The media spectacle surrounding the Mona Lisa’s American debut inevitably captured the attention of Andy Warhol. In the 1960s, the famed pop artist began creating a colorful variety of Mona Lisa silkscreen reproductions, a process he borrowed from commercial advertising that allowed him to quickly and easily make copies of an original image.


Alongside pop culture icons like Coca-Cola bottles, Campbell’s Soup cans, and Marilyn Monroe, Warhol’s Mona Lisa prints raised important questions about the scope of fine art in a post-modern world. Warhol said, “It doesn’t matter if it displays Mona Lisa, a banana or Hans Rittman’s glasses—the fact is, it must be pop!” His reproductions of Leonardo’s original are unmistakably pop art, emphasizing the tension between the original painting’s cultural significance and mainstream stardom.


Such reproductions and reimaginations of the larger-than-life Mona Lisa are more abundant than ever in the twenty-first century. In 2019, a record 9.6 million people visited the Louvre and saw the infamous portrait for themselves—and most of them likely took pictures of it or bought a Mona Lisa souvenir from the gift shop. As Louis Armstrong once aptly said, “A lotta cats copy the Mona Lisa, but people still line up to see the original.”


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By Emily SnowMA History of Art, BA Art History & Curatorial StudiesEmily Snow is a contributing writer and art historian based in Amsterdam. She earned an MA in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art and loves knitting, her calico cat, and everything Victorian.